Digest>Archives> May 2004

Life On The U.S.L.H. Tender Shrub

A study in Navigation, Ship Handlin’ and a lot o’ Hard Work

By Robert Dennis


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Bob Dennis at the Bristol Lighthouse Depot in ...

There was always half the crew on board. The seamen had every other weekend off; the firemen had every third weekend off, while the officers were on a different schedule. The Shrub was about 125 feet long and 28 feet beam with two coal-fired boilers. She carried 150 pounds of saturated steam. The main engine was a compound hand-oiled 2 cylinder. The fire room and engine were in the same compartment. Forward of the boiler was the winch room with the crew’s quarters forward of that.

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The lighthouse tender Shrub. Courtesy of Robert ...

In the winter months, we maintained the vessel in between other duties. Good weather, we’d work outside and bad weather, we’d work inside. When lights were reported out, we proceeded to that light and put it in operating order again.


Ice made a lot of extra work. In 1938 and ‘39, the bay was frozen as far south as Dyer Island. Most of the buoys were overrun by the ice causing them to put out. Hank and I had the job of jumping from the ship to the ice covered buoy. We would hang the best we could until the ship backed away, and then it was our job to open the lantern, bail out the water, dry out the light and relight it. These lights operated on acetylene.

After the buoy was lit, we waited for the ship to come and pick us up which was not always that easy. The buoy was not very steady to jump to the ship from. As long as we had ice, this would continue all day . . . breaking ice then relighting the buoys.

The Coast Guard Cutter Algonquin came to help us keep the channels open.

One morning the mate said to me, “I want you to make a new cover for the life boat.” I was given a bolt of canvas, needles, and a right-handed sewing palm. I am left-handed. Well, I never made a boat cover before and never sewed by hand before either! Since I had a right-handed sewing palm, I had to teach myself to sew right-handed.

First of all, how do I measure the material? I went back to the ship to take a look at the old boat cover. Now, with some measurements and a small drawing, I started on my project. I laid out the whole thing in the loft - so far, so good. Learning to sew right-handed took a while to master, but a week later, we had a new boat cover on the lifeboat.


In the fall came time for coaling and delivering supplies. The lighthouse tenders would deliver to various lighthouses their yearly supply of coal. It was soft coal; the dirtiest, wettest, and coldest duty that the crew on a tender had.

Let me describe how we coaled the last lighthouse we came to in 1939. The lighthouse was Rose Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.

We left Bristol Depot for Staples Coal Company in Fall River, Massachusetts to load on deck ten to twelve tons of loose, soft coal. Anyone who has not handled this material has not missed a thing! This material is dusty, lumpy, and powdery all at the same time.


While proceeding down Narragansett Bay to Rose Island, the crew would bag as much as we could. This called for all hands. Each bag weighed about 75 pounds. These were canvas so that they could be reused again and again. Astern of the tender, we towed a 28-foot motor workboat and one 28-foot workboat.

On arrival at the light, the motor workboat and another would come along side of the tender to be loaded with bags of coal. Both would be loaded until there was six inches freeboard.

At that time, the workboats would proceed to the beach and be run up onto it. Two men would stay in the boats while the other five jumped overboard up to their waists in the cold salt water.

As a man backed up to the boat, you would have a bag of coal put on your back, and you started for the lighthouse up the bank, across the lawn, and then down to the cellar to the coal bin where you dumped your bag and went back for another one.

This routine continued until the boats were unloaded then the boats would return to the tender for another load. This was an all day affair, so you were cold and wet all day. Now that is just one lighthouse! Rose Island was an easy one.

The next day we would spend at the depot, if at all possible. The captains of the tender were considerate of their crews. Lighthouses like Sakonnet, Whale Rock, and Minot’s were more difficult to coal because of the weather. You would work out of the workboat, and it depended on the weather how much you could deliver at one time. Very early in the morning was the best time. This meant that we were up at 2 a.m.


We had good ship’s cooks and we ate very well. The days started off with breakfast at 7:00 a.m., dinner at noon and supper at 5:30 p.m. The mate would have the day’s work all planned. If it was to change some buoys, let’s say 1st class nuns and cans, usually we put six for eight on deck along with chain, shackles, and sinkers. This would be one day’s work.

With this we knew to expect a 1300 call up to get underway for the area we were to work in that day. Usually we were at the first buoy right after chow.

Each man in the deck force had a specific job. Rudy painted the numbers on the buoys just before they went over the side. Two other men handled the port and starboard tackles which controlled the swinging of the boom.


My position was to handle the slip line. This line was about three inches in diameter and three fathoms long with an eye splice in one end. All our lines were four-strand manila. The chain was shackled to the sinker with a hot key, meaning that it was heated and twisted when installed.

This line had an eye spliced in it, which was placed on the set of bitts at the forward end of the buoy port. The bitter end ran through the sinked bale and back to the bitts and secured. Now with all chain flaked out and shackled to the buoy and sinked, the buoy was hung outboard by the main boom.

When the captain put the ship in the position, he would toot the whistle and I would release the slip line. Away would go the sinker and chain, then the buoy was lowered into the water, and the main hook would be released.

There was another slip lime at a place about two fathoms from the buoy in the chain, this was secured to a large cleat at the after side of the buoy port to prevent the buoy from whipping around when the chain went overboard. With the buoy set, there was room on deck for the one that was replaced.


The working gear consisted of a 20-ton main boom and a whip. The whip was a large hook on a steel cable used to haul chain on board. Also, it was used to break out a sinker, as they would be well buried after a year in the mud. The steam winch operated on 150 pounds S.S.

The sinker and chain, if needed, was installed with the sinker placed on the slip line and hung overboard ready for lowering when the next buoy was ready. During this time, the deck was covered with marine growth from the buoy just put on deck. The major part is swept overboard. While this was being done the tender was steaming on to the next location.

The captain had a file on every buoy. On 3”x 5” cards, each card read as follows: name, location, latitude, longitude, number, and depth of water. Usually on the back of each card were several bearings which were taken as close as possible to 90º for a fix when replacing the buoy.

To retrieve a buoy, first the main tackle is hooked on. As the buoy is raised two members of the crew would scrape off as much marine growth as possible with long-handled scrapers. This was wet and dirty work as you worked under the buoy. As it was raised deck height and swinging so the whip could be hooked onto the chain. The chain was then disconnected from the buoy as a small line was passed through the bail so that several men could haul the buoy to its place on deck.

Spar buoys bearings were taken at less than 90º. A spar buoy is a large wooden pole 12 to 18 feet long with a bale attached to the large end. The bail was shackled to the sinker. No chain was used. Raising a spar buoy was hard, tedious work as they raised it by hand with a tackle from the workboat.

The stern of the workboat was placed against the spar and a stopper knot was slid down the buoy as far as possible. The stopper on the buoy was connected to a 3-fold tackle and then to a towing bit in the bow of the workboat. Then with a lot of strength and a little stupidity, we hauled until the buoy was clear of the bottom and towed it to the tender.

A List of the crew members as I remember them:

Captain - Mr. Slamp

1st Mate - Mr. Edward Sanford

Chief Engineer - Mr. Willard Hilton

2nd Assistant Engineer - Mr. James Dixon

Quartermaster - Mr. Freeman Crosby

Oiler - Mr. Huggard

Firemen - George Lopes, Antone Gomes and one other (name forgotten)

Seamen - Rudy Arruda, Minander, Mike, Van Hoff, and myself.

Cook - Arthur (Good cook)

Messboy - Jackie

This story appeared in the May 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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